An overflow crowd, many holding up protest signs, showed up at a political gathering Tuesday night to condemn Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle for her decision to charge no one in the death of a prison inmate who collapsed while locked in a shower for 90 minutes.
The protesters flocked to a meeting of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Fernandez Rundle is one of the party’s most prominent local figures. The meeting, at times tense, focused on the plight of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old inmate who suffered from severe mental illness. He was locked in the shower on June 23, 2012, after smearing himself with feces in the mental health unit at Dade Correctional Institution.
Several fellow inmates said that he screamed for mercy, and that the shower, whose temperature controls were in an adjacent room, had been used to punish other inmates.
“There is a growing public outcry,” said one crowd member, who expressed skepticism and frustration over what he and others characterized as Fernandez Rundle’s “24-year history of inaction” in holding police officers accountable.
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The local party had drawn up a set of resolutions, including one calling for Fernandez Rundle to resign. Many in the crowd wanted that resolution adopted. But there was no official vote for lack of a quorum, despite every seat at the Miami Springs AFL-CIO union hall being filled.
The lack of a vote further inflamed some of those present. The state attorney spoke for about a half hour, and presented a slide show that included graphic photographs of Rainey’s body, which was stripped of much of its outer layer of skin.
Dr. Leonarda Duran Buike, one of those viewing the slide show, stood up and declared: “I know burns. Those were second- and third-degree burns.”
But Fernandez Rundle said, “the test is what the law says and what the evidence says.” She pointed to the finding of Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Emma Lew, who said Rainey did not suffer burns, indicating that the shower was not exceedingly hot. If the water was not dangerously hot, there is no evidence that guards intended to hurt Rainey, the state attorney reasoned in her close-out memo.
Crowd members were not placated.
“What I found troublesome is we never did a grand jury,” said one.
Fernandez Rundle maintained that fewer prosecutors are using grand juries because they are a closed process.
“This way everything is open and honest,” she said.
Fernandez Rundle has been state attorney in Miami-Dade for the past 24 years. The Democrat has rarely had a challenge during her seven terms of office. But in recent years, she has faced criticism by civil rights and community groups who claim she has failed to hold law enforcement officers who commit wrongdoing accountable.
On March 17 — after nearly three years of investigating Rainey’s death — Rundle issued a final report, announcing that there would be no charges brought against four corrections officers implicated in the case. Fernandez Rundle said that there was insufficient evidence to prove a crime, largely because the medical examiner ruled his death an accident.
Two other medical examiners who reviewed the case for the Miami Herald question her conclusions. They believe that his injuries showed that he was scalded prior to his death.
Fernandez Rundle and county officials who oversee the medical examiner have refused to allow a private forensic pathologist to review the skin tissue sample that would show more clearly whether Rainey was burned.
Lew found that Rainey’s skin blisters were not burns, but skin slippage that occurred after his death during the natural decomposition process. She has declined to discuss her findings publicly.
Rainey’s family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, alleging that he was tortured by guards who used the “shower treatment” against him and other inmates in the mental health unit.